After years of research and preparation, James had finally secured a slot to speak at the prestigious international physics conference. He would be presenting his studies in the field of quantum mechanics, and was looking forward to the largest scale event of his life. He had never before presented at an official conference, let alone one of such prestige. It had taken every ounce of courage within him to even submit work to such an event, and he knew that a successful lecture could change the trajectory of his career.
When the day of the presentation arrived, James woke up feeling nervous but excited. He was about to present his life’s work before a crowd of the foremost researchers in his field. After preparing his lecture notes carefully, he strode into the conference room. The room was completely empty. “Strange,” he thinks. “Maybe the previous sessions went overtime?” He prepares everything carefully, and looks down at his watch again. It’s now five minutes past the start time, and not a single person has shown up. A bead of sweat rolls down his neck as he weighs his options. “Maybe this was all for nothing!” he thinks angrily. “Maybe I should just pack up and leave!”
“No, just give it another minute or so,” a calmer voice in the back of his head insists.
Thirty seconds later, an elegant looking gentleman, probably in his mid-60s, walks into the room. He slowly strolls to the front row, takes a seat, and focuses his piercing blue eyes on James.
Slightly taken aback, James forces a smile and proceeds to deliver his lecture, surprised at how engaged his single audience member is. Upon concluding his speech, the man came over and generously thanked James for sharing such an enlightening presentation. “Wow! I’ve been to countless conferences, but this was the greatest presentation I have ever been privileged to hear. You have a bright future ahead of you, son. I wish you all the success in the world and can’t wait to see all the incredible things you accomplish with your life.”
James floated out of the conference, inspired and confident to begin his next big project. While unpacking from his trip, he found a crumpled-up copy of the conference brochure. He proudly looked at it again, when he suddenly noticed something, someone, staring back at him from the cover of the glossy pamphlet. It was his blue-eyed friend. As he looked closer, he remembered feeling that the blue-eyed audience member looked oddly familiar. “Of course he looked familiar!” he gasped, as he realized that this man was the keynote speaker, the featured scientist who had been flown in from London to lead the conference. This was one of the most respected and revered figures in the scientific world, and he had come to James’ speech!
James spent the next several hours tracking down this man’s phone number. When he finally got him on the phone, James couldn’t contain himself: “I don’t understand! You are the greatest quantum physicist in the world. You knew everything I said and infinitely more. Why did you even bother coming to my presentation?”
There was a small pause, and then a gentle reply: “I will tell you the truth. Thirty years ago, I was a young, ambitious thinker and wanted to make a big impact on the world. I got an opportunity to present at a conference very similar to the one we just came from. This was the most exciting opportunity I had ever been given and I prepared night and day for months in advance. When I showed up to deliver my presentation, not a single person showed up. I was crushed, defeated, and dejected. I seriously doubted my self-worth and almost gave up on my aspirations altogether. It took me years to overcome the emotional hurt. Yesterday, when I finished my keynote address, I was on my way back to the airport to present at another conference. However, when I passed by your room, I saw you standing there in an empty room, and it was like looking at a mirror. A reflection of my past emerged, and I saw myself standing in front of an empty lecture hall. I knew that the best way to encourage you, to teach you, and ensure that you continue striving forward, was to sit in on your presentation and show you respect, make you feel heard. The greatest form of leadership is empowering others to be leaders.
James never forgot that conversation.
The question of leadership is both fascinating and fundamental to human society. In this week’s parshah, Parshas Shoftim, the Torah discusses the three categories of Jewish leadership: The melech (king), the Sanhedrin (courts), and the kohanim (priests). What is the Jewish approach to leadership, and how does it compare to other perspectives on leadership?
Leadership to Serve Yourself
The most primitive form of leadership is selfish leadership, rule driven by power and fear. In such a system, the leader represents only himself and his own selfish desires. He demands power, craving it for himself, and leads his people primarily through fear. In such a system, he demands the allegiance of his people and promises food, shelter, and perhaps power and honor, in return for loyalty and respect.
This was the system of old, where kings, tyrants, and oligarchies ruled large provinces. Wealth, birthright, or rebellion served as the right for leadership, and the purpose of leadership was focused solely on the leader – the goal was to give the leader increased power, respect, and control. This system was inherently corrupt. There was endless bloodshed, as the king killed anyone who stood in his way. There were pointless wars, whereby the king would send his young men to die for no other reason than to expand his territories and increase his own glory. In essence, the king answered to no one other than himself.
Representing the People
In response to such corruption, there became an increased desire to shift the focus of power. As history unfolded, leadership moved towards democracy. In such a system, the power belongs to the people, not the leader. The leader is appointed to best serve the people. If he fails to do so, he will be removed and replaced with someone better suited.
This is a far better system than the previous one, as it stabilizes power and creates a society focused on the needs of the people, rather than an individual king or elite few.
Nevertheless, there is still a fundamental problem with pure democracy: A leader becomes nothing more than a puppet of the people. The flaw in this is apparent. Imagine if parents lost their parental license as soon as their child got upset with their decisions. As soon as the parents put their child to bed, they’d be out of a job. When a leader is fully subject to the will of the people, it is impossible to lead. Democratic leaders may appear to be leading, but in essence, they are following.
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 97a) states that Mashiach will come at a time when the generation’s face will be like the face of a dog. Rav Elchanan Wasserman explains the depth behind this statement: When you see someone walking a dog on a leash, from the onlooker’s perspective, it appears as though the dog is leading. He is the one walking ahead of his owner; he appears to be calling the shots. However, this is an illusion. The dog is completely subject to the will of its owner. One small tug and he changes direction. The dog is the follower, placed in an illusory position of leadership.
Many democratic systems suffer from this flaw. Leaders are appointed by the people, and therefore are fully subject to the will of the people. They walk ahead, pretending to lead, while in fact, they are merely puppets. Whatever the people want, they’ll do. They create their policies and campaigns around the people and polls, not based on their internal values. They would change their policy in an instant if it meant more votes.
A true leader stands for the truth, for their inner values, regardless of opposition. He or she walks ahead and doesn’t look back. Even if no one follows, he pushes onward. He never sacrifices his ideals for public approval. A true leader creates a direction for a greater future, a pathway to individual and collective greatness, and inspires the people to strive for that ideal. This is the nature of Jewish leadership. Let’s briefly explore this topic.
True Leadership: Connecting to Something Higher
A Torah leader does not represent himself or the will of the people; he represents Hashem. A Torah leader is a delegate of Hashem in this world, and will lead the people towards the truth, towards their true destination. Of course, he will care about, and empathize with, every individual, deeply so; but the foundational goal of leadership involves driving people towards a transcendent goal.
Traditional kings represented themselves, and were therefore no greater than themselves. Democratic leaders are chosen by the will of the people, and are therefore usually no better than the people themselves. A true leader is one who is striving towards perfection, and leading others on their own individual and collective journeys, as well.
There are three categories of Jewish leadership mentioned in the Torah, each of which serves his own unique role. While they all serve both a practical and religious role, each category maintains its own unique purpose in enabling the Jewish people to fulfill their purpose and connect to Hashem. The melech serves as an embodiment and manifestation of Hashem in this world, negating his ego and serving to reveal Hashem in this world. The Sanhedrin serves to maintain the Jewish ideals in society, ensuring that the Jewish people live up to their purpose. The kohanim serve to both help the Jewish people connect to Hashem and help properly manifest Hashem into this world.
Leaders are not only the face of a nation, the people who stand in front of large crowds and deliver extraordinary and inspiring speeches. Leaders are those who are on a mission, those who empower others, those who are always looking for ways to contribute to klal Yisrael and the Jewish people as a whole. Leaders are great parents, great teachers, great friends. We are all potential leaders, potential revolutionaries. We can all create change in the world. But to create any external change, we must first learn to change ourselves. Let us all be inspired to become the greatest version of ourselves, with the hopes of becoming people capable of inspiring others to become the greatest version of themselves, as well.